So I arrived at work this morning with the plan to write about the pretty fine new Wu-Tang Clan album. I’ve been momentarily distracted, though, by the discovery that Def Jam are streaming the entire new Ghostface Killah album on their website.
In recent years, I think the Ghost has been the most consistently interesting and exciting rapper in America, and it’s been fascinating to see how his career has evolved from being one of the Wu’s most unpredictable footsoldiers, a spluttering maverick with a penchant for richly overloaded imagery and detuned sing-songs, to the Clan’s most bankable solo star.
I’m about halfway through “The Big Doe Rehab” now, and there’s some great things here in his usual languid, played-out soul style, with a new smattering of Fania-style breaks (a track called “Walk Alone” has been the stand-out thus far), if maybe not quite as extraordinary as last year’s “Fish Scale”; if you haven’t bought a hip-hop album in the last five years and are feeling a vague urge, that’s the one to go for.
Obviously, I’ll write about this more when I’ve digested properly. But for the time being, I’ve a much stronger handle on the Wu-Tang reunion album, “8 Diagrams”. Ghostface is not on this too much, and neither is his closest ally Raekwon, and there are various rumours flying around about the pair falling out with the Wu’s de facto leader, RZA.
RZA is accused of diluting the Wu sound on “8 Diagrams”, employing sweetened sung choruses and hiring guitarists (notably John Frusciante and George Harrison’s son Dhani) to play on Ghost’s showcase, “The Heart Gently Weeps”. To my woolly ears, though, there doesn’t sound much like a sell-out here: much of the music is still murky, cinematic and minimal, a low backdrop for the traditional martial arts samples, and for the overlapping verses of the Wu members.
As they dodge round each other, often seeming to gently barge their predecessor off the mic, I’m reminded that the Wu in full flight remains – internecine bickers notwithstanding- one of the most straightforwardly thrilling sounds in modern music. As it is, “8 Diagrams” is far better than anyone could have realistically expected, a brutal and fluent re-iteration of the Clan’s supremacy.
Clearly, it’s the RZA’s project: he produces and raps on it more than he has in years, and more obedient Clan members like GZA (his cousin, if I remember right), the lisping Method Man and the stentorian U-God (one of the Clan’s most undervalued members, but on fire here) get most of the leads. “Rushing Elephants” is superb, from the title down, one of those furious marches into battle at which the clan excel, and the way it dovetails into the slashing menace of “Unpredictable” – some screaming guitar on here, too – is exhilarating. But I also love the loopy “Wolves”, featuring a full-blooded refrain from George Clinton and “Windmill”, with its faintly deranged Cotton Club ambience.
I guess plenty of focus will be on “Life Changes”, where everyone except Ghostface queues up to do homage to their fallen brother Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But ironically, Ghostface is the one Clan member who is most effective at a kind of unorthodox sentimentality, and in his absence, his brethren seem a bit mawkish.
All told, though, it’s a better record than their last group effort, 2001’s erratic “Iron Flag”, maybe even 2000’s “The W”. Better than “The Big Doe Rehab”? I’ll get back to you on that. . .